During the past few years we have been observing some Stratfordians clutching at straws; the last case being Prof. Stanley Wells with his delighted discovery that the Janssen/Cobbe Portrait shows, at last, the face of their beloved Bard. In fact, it seems generally accepted that the man in the portrait is Sir Thomas Overbury, but Mr. Wells decided otherwise and announced it to the media. Not that this particular issue matters much in respect of the Authorship Question, because even if it were the case that the Janssen/Cobbe portrait is Shakespeare’s that would in no way prove that he wrote anything, only that he was wealthy enough to wear such an elaborate costume. Compared to the sober attire of the Chandos man and even the Monument man, this would indeed be revealing.
But what is remarkable is that despite all the research that Stratfordian academics continue to do, the information that has so far come to light is repeated evidence that William Shakespeare was an excellent businessman who combined his activities as a merchant in Stratford with his (necessarily light) theatrical activities in London. Such theatrical activities imply that he was either a principal actor (which we know he was not), or an important shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men. Apart from that, and as an anecdote, we know that he composed an extraordinary will, in which both the second best bed, the one and only legacy he left to his wife, and the rings that he left to his ffellowes John Hemyngs, Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell were afterthoughts.1
In an illuminating work called The Progresses, Processions and Magnificient Festivities of King James the First [...] Comprising Forty Masques and Entertainments [...], in three volumes,2 edited by one John Nichols, we are made aware of a curious situation.
Starting with Sorrowes Joy, the Cambridge Poems on the death of Elizabeth and Accession of James, the volumes follow King James’ reign from the moment of the Queen’s death, along his progress south from Edinburgh to London, all the way to his coronation and on to the end of his reign, including the various events that took place in Madrid, during Prince Charles’ visit to that city in 1623, in a last attempt to bring about the marriage of the Prince to the Spanish Infanta and her considerable dowry.
Along the pages of these three volumes, we find practically every name related to poetry and literature that we have ever heard of within that period (and even several names that I, at least, had never heard before). Prominent among these is Ben Jonson, with no less than thirty entries between masques and poems, in a total of one hundred and four events recorded.3
In other words, virtually every important poet and dramatist living during the reign of King James (vg: Jonson, Marston, Daniel, Middleton, Dekker, Beaumont, Munday, Drayton, Chapman, etc.) is mentioned at least once in these volumes, as having written and/or taken part in the said festivities, masques and entertainments. That is to say, every important poet and dramatist save two: William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Their names do not appear at all in the index of those one hundred and four events.
Shakespeare, however, appears once in the main text and twice in footnotes by Nichols, one of which footnotes is interesting enough to be reproduced, below. Fletcher is also mentioned in a footnote as “a celebrated dramatic poet." But here is the one and only piece of information on Shakespeare that appears in the main text. (Vol 1, 156) Dated 19th May 1603: “the Royal Licence was granted to Laurence Fletches, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Augustine Phillipes, John Heminge, Henrie Condell, William Sly, Robert Armin, Richard Cowley, and the rest of their associates, freely to use and exercise the arte and faculty of playing comedies, tragedies, histories, interludes, morals, pastorals, stage plays and such like others as they have already studied or hereafter shall use or study, as well as for the recreation of our loving subjects, as well as for our solace and pleasure, when we shall think good to see them, during our pleasure; and the said comedies, tragedies histories [etc.] and such like to show and exercise publicly to their best commodity, when the infection of the plague shall decrease, as well within their now usual place The Globe, within our County of Surrey.” This is an obvious list of actors and/or shareholders, not authors.
Then in 1614 we find the following entry (Vol 3, pg 26): A letter from John Chamberlaine to his faithful correspondent Dudley Carlton: “They have plays at court every night, both holy-days and working days, wherein they show great patience, being for the most part such poor stuff that, instead of delight, they send the auditory away with discontent. Indeed our Poets’ brains and inventions are grown very dry, insomuch that of five new plays there is not one that pleases, and therefore they are driven to furbish over their old; which stand them in best stead and bring them most profit.”
To this, J. Nichols adds the following footnote: “Had one of the enthusiastic annotators of Shakespeare met with this sentence, he would not have failed to twist it to his own advantage, by remarking that the career of the Immortal Bard was now closed or nearly so; that other dramatists could not satisfy the public appetite, lately pampered by his unrivalled productions, and that therefore his old plays were obliged to be revived; yet the year 1614 is affixed by Johnson and Steevens4 to the Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which play and The Tempest Warburton5 calls ‘the noblest efforts of that sublime and amazing imagination peculiar to Shakespeare!’ It is a truth which requires no demonstration, that Shakespeare in his own time was little more thought of by the public than his fellow playwrights were; and yet it is a remarkable proof that such was the case, that we never find him mentioned by the ever communicative Mr Chamberlaine.” (My italics.)
We have a further example of Mr. Chamberlaine’s “forgetfulness” of, or simply indifference to, the man Shakespeare. Immediately after the information given above, about the Royal Licence, in which we have seen William Shakespeare’s name listed with the other shareholders and/or players, Nichols inserts a footnote on the burning of The Globe on 29th June 1613. In the eighteen lines of this footnote he quotes two letters, one from John Chamberlain to Sir Ralph Winwood, and another from Sir Henry Wooton to “A Friend." The letters are highly informative and include the two current titles of the play that was being performed when the theatre went up in flames: Henry VIII or All Is True,6 but neither the correspondences nor Mr. Nichols mentions the name of the author struck by such calamity.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is all that we find about William Shakespeare in the 2,553 pages (indexes and footnotes included) that Mr. Nichols managed to put together in an extraordinary collection of literary activities, court gossip and general goings on among the royalty, the aristocracy and the intelligentsia during the twenty-three years of King James’ reign. His observation that Shakespeare is never mentioned in Chamberlaine’s innumerable letters I find equally significant.
So, looking at Mr. Nichols' extraordinary collection of private performances and social activities, we see no Shakespeare at all between 1603 and 1616, except as an actor/manager. No Shakespeare! And yet we know that the author of the thirty-six plays in the FF was not above writing masques, such as appear, for example, in Love’s Labour’s Lost or The Tempest. Could the reason for this conspicuous absence be that all these masques, performed at court or in private circles by members of the nobility and even the royal family, required the physical presence of the authors in the proceedings? In Jonson’s Masque of Oberon, for example, performed at Whitehall on 1st January 1611, the part of Oberon was played by Prince Henry7; the Queen herself and Lucy, Countess of Bedford,8 performed in Jonson’s Masque of Blackness, Masque of Beauty and Masque of the Queens. Can we doubt that Jonson was present during rehearsals?
The Shakespere of the Coat of Arms was a man who liked his social climbing, and these masques and entertainments were all the rage, especially while Queen Anne was still alive (she died 1619); so can we believe that he would have missed the chance to hobnob with the royals and the nobility, while giving them stage directions? And the reason couldn’t be that he was too busy writing the, at least, ten plays that appear in the ten years between 1603 and the burning of the Globe in 1613; after all, the author of the FF should have been able to write a masque standing on his head.
So perhaps there was a different explanation for the absence of Mr. Shakespeare of Stratford, both in Nichols' masques and entertainments and in Mr. Chamberlaine’s letters.
© Isabel Gortázar, October 2009
Isabel Gortázar is an independent scholar, specializing in Shakespeare and Marlowe studies. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Marlowe Society (UK) and a founding member of the International Marlowe Society. She divides her time between London and Bilbao, Spain.
1The words “Item; I give unto my wife my second best bed with the furniture” are written above the main text, as an amendment; there is no other bequest to Mrs. Shakespeare in the will. Also, the words specifying the money left to his three ffellowes, xxvjª viijª Apiece to buy them Ringes, are written above the main text.
2Collected and published by John Nichols, FSA. Lon. Edinb. & Perth. Printed 1828. The third volume is double.
3As a matter of interest here, Beaumont contributes with just one Masque of the Middle Temple and Gray’s Inn, 1612-13, (later inserted into The Two Noble Kinsmen); so at the end of his writing career.
4“Johnson and Steevens”: This would refer to the 10-volume work The Works of Shakespeare with the Corrections and Illustrations of Various Commentators (1773), prepared by George Steevens (1736-1800). Known as the “Johnson and Steevens Edition," Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is supposed to have contributed very little to the work.
5William Warburton (1698-1779) published his own edition of Shakespeare’s works in 1747, after working on it for nine years. It seems Dr. Johnson was not impressed by Warburton’s comments and opinions.
6In the FF, the play appears as The Famous History of the Life of Henry the Eighth, but the original title, according to contemporary letters was All is True.
7For those who believe that the Earl of Oxford would write plays for the public theatres under the alias of “William Shakespeare," I hope they don't believe also that Prince Henry used to steal away in the evenings to play Hamlet at the Globe under an assumed name, just because he enjoyed performing masques at court.
8The Countess of Bedford, Sir John Harington’s daughter, appears in the Anthony Bacon papers (Lambeth Palace Library) at the time of Mr. Le Doux’s visit to Burley in 1595/6. Lucy Bedford and her mother, Lady Harington, became constant companions of Queen Anne, while John Harington Junior became the intimate friend of Prince Henry.
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